It wasn’t the site of a major Biblical battle or one of the stops on Paul’s journeys, but I was very excited to get the opportunity to work on an excavation at ancient Messene in the southwestern Peloponnese of Greece in the summer of 2003. After taking some college courses in Greco-Roman art, architecture and archaeology, I couldn’t wait to put those studies into practice and, quite literally, get my hands dirty.
Those five weeks I spent working on the excavation were hot, difficult and yes, very dirty, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. With our relatively small group of 18 staff and volunteers, I got to work on almost every aspect of the project, from digging in the trenches and cataloging pottery to photographing finds, drawing architectural blocks and even conserving a mosaic floor. I enjoyed learning the wide variety of tasks needed to make a dig run smoothly—and it has given me an even greater appreciation of the hard work that goes into the excavations we publish regularly in BAR. But for me, some of the best parts were what happened outside of the archaeological work.
Our group of American students and professors stayed in the small village of Mavromati on the slopes of Mt. Ithomi (the site of ancient Messene was situated at the base of the mountain), and the friendly locals treated us to the authentic Greek experience. What an indulgence it was to add generous gifts of fresh eggs or cherries from our neighbors’ small farms to our simple lunches of tomato and cucumber sandwiches. Each night as we walked to supper around 9:00, when many of us were tired enough to be climbing into bed for the night, we were instead greeted warmly by everyone sitting on their front steps along the street. We were then treated to a delicious meal of Greek food at the village taverna, including plenty of fresh bread, wine and Greek salad—which, understandably, was simply called “salad.” (I also learned that Greeks use the phrase “It’s all Chinese to me” since, of course, Greek is perfectly clear to them!)
The christening of a new baby one evening brought the whole town to the taverna to feast and celebrate—complete with musicians, dancing and a lamb roasting on a spit. We were welcomed into the party, and I couldn’t resist joining in the festivities by learning some of the dance steps (by crawford). Before long I was shouting “Opa!” as enthusiastically as the rest, and I felt as though I’d entered a scene from the recent movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding—it was so much fun!
Having weekends free to travel was another wonderful part of the experience. Although we mostly had to stay on the Peloponnese because of time constraints, I got to see some amazing sights—and sites. One weekend a couple of my new friends and I rented a small car and independently navigated our way up to Olympia, where I ran a lap around the original Olympic stadium and was then dwarfed standing next to the toppled column capitals of the Temple of Zeus (see photo). Another weekend I enjoyed the 3,600-year-old view from palace ruins atop Mycenae, where King Agamemnon (of Trojan War fame) once ruled, and which was excavated by the famous (or notorious) Heinrich Schliemann in the late 19th century. That same night we watched a performance of Oedipus at Colonus (in Greek) at the wonderfully preserved ancient theater of Epidaurus, which was built in the fourth century B.C. and enlarged in the Roman period. Other days were simply spent relaxing on the beautiful Mediterranean beaches or swimming in the sea, and before I flew back home I spent a whirlwind day in Athens seeing everything I could, from the majestic Acropolis to the bustling Plaka.
Throughout it all I was continually grateful for and amazed by the opportunities and adventures I had on my trip to Greece—all because I joined a dig.
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